Minor League Depth — Pitching, Part 2 (Upper Level Relievers)

Justin Wilson is emerging as a power relief option from the left side

Bullpens don’t work quite the same way in the minors as they do in the majors. Most teams, including the Pirates, prefer to develop their pitching prospects as starters. The Pirates won’t normally move a pitcher to the bullpen until it becomes clear that starting isn’t in the cards for that pitcher, either due to health concerns or other reasons. This can happen with some pitchers, like Diego Moreno, in the low minors and others, like Bryan Morris and possibly Justin Wilson, in the upper minors. Almost no minor league roster has 10+ established pitching prospects, though, so the bullpen usually will be made up, in whole or in part, of organizational pitchers and others who probably don’t have a strong chance of reaching the majors. A lot of minor league relievers—and this is decidedly true in the Pirates’ system—have some ability, like good velocity or a good slider, but need to find a more effective secondary pitch or improve their command or make some other adjustment to become prospects. What follows is a look at the pitchers who’ll probably be in the bullpens with the Pirates’ top three affiliates in 2012.

Parentheses indicate that there’s a reasonable chance the player won’t start at that level. LHPs are marked with an asterisk (*).

Indianapolis (AAA)

Justin Wilson*, Bryan Morris, (Dan Moskos*), Jared Hughes, Aaron Poreda*, Ryota Igarashi, Logan Kensing, Mike Crotta, Tim Wood, Kris Johnson*

The Indianapolis bullpen in 2012 figures to have a more-interesting-than-usual mix of prospects and veteran depth. The most prominent of the prospects will be Wilson and Morris, both of whom went into 2011 among the team’s top starting prospects, but moved to the bullpen due to command issues. Both could still return to starting, but they’ll probably have to make their way to the majors initially as relievers. Morris will be in his last option year and hasn’t yet pitched above AA, so he’ll have to make quick progress. Moskos probably has an outside shot at the Pirates’ bullpen in April, due to Clint Hurdle’s stated preference for having two lefties, but he was unimpressive in 2011 after a strong 2010. Hughes saw a sudden improvement in his stuff when he moved to the pen in mid-2011 and will almost certainly return to the majors at some point in 2012. Crotta will be trying to get back on track after elbow problems wrecked his 2011 season.

All of the veterans whom the Pirates acquired for 2012 present significant upsides, albeit limited odds of reaching them. Poreda was once one of the top LHP prospects in the minors, but his control mysteriously disappeared when he was traded from the White Sox to the Padres. Igarashi was once the hardest thrower in Japan, but lost velocity after Tommy John surgery and struggled with his command after signing with the Mets.  Kensing has always had good velocity and an ability to miss bats, but has struggled with control problems and numerous arm injuries. Wood showed excellent stuff in AAA with the Pirates last year but couldn’t throw strikes in the majors. Johnson is a former supplemental first round pick of the Red Sox who failed as a starter, but could do better in relief.

Altoona (AA)

Duke Welker, Tim Alderson, Diego Moreno, Eliecer Cardenas, Jose Diaz, (Tyler Cox*), (Jhonathan Ramos*), (Brian Leach), (Ryan Beckman), Mike Dubee, Noah Krol, Kyle Cofield

Altoona will have an interesting mix of pitchers with some ability who mostly are looking to take that one big step forward. The most prominent are probably Alderson, Welker, Moreno and Cardenas. Alderson is trying to resurrect his former top prospect status in the bullpen. He had a strong first half in 2011 but struggled badly late in the season, so he should return to AA. Welker has a mid- to upper-90s fastball that he’s made strides in controlling over the last two years, earning a spot on the 40-man roster. Moreno has had trouble adapting to AA despite an upper-90s fastball and good control, and surprisingly wasn’t taken in the Rule 5 draft. Cardenas came from the Braves for Matt Diaz and is coming off a big season in high A, although he had a very difficult time in a few appearances in AA.

Cox, Ramos, Leach and Beckman will have to earn promotions from Bradenton. Cox has done well since moving to relief, but missed part of 2011. Ramos has been used as a swing man and appears headed to be an organizational pitcher, but he was very effective in relief and against left-handed batters. He and Cox could both have potential as LOOGYs. Beckman is a sidearm pitcher who throws a bit harder than most pitchers of that type (low-90s). He had a strong second half at Bradenton in 2011. Leach opened 2011 in AA but was demoted due to control problems, which continued to trouble him at Bradenton.

Of the veterans who figure to be at Altoona, Diaz is the most interesting. He’s listed at 6’4”, 300, which may be understated, and throws in the mid- to upper-90s. He’ll probably be the Curve’s closer, but it’s hard to say whether he has a realistic chance of going much farther. Dubee has pitched well for Altoona for two and a half years now, but hasn’t gotten more than a token chance in AAA. The Pirates might release him. Krol was the Curve’s closer last year and didn’t pitch well. He also could be a candidate for release. Cofield is a sinkerball pitcher who was considered a good prospect with the Braves, but who ran into elbow and control problems. The Pirates might try to help him work his way back to starting.

Bradenton (High A)

Victor Black, Jason Townsend, Casey Sadler, (Tyler Cox*), (Jhonathan Ramos*), (Brian Leach), (Ryan Beckman), Eliecer Navarro*, Porfirio Lopez*, Jason Erickson, (Kevin Decker), (Zach Foster)

The Bradenton bullpen could be quite crowded, especially since some erstwhile starters, like Jeff Inman, could get pushed to relief. The team should have at least three relievers who’ve shown significant potential in Black, Townsend and Sadler. Black has the potential to be a late-inning reliever in the majors if he can stay healthy. Townsend has thrown in the upper-90s. His velocity wasn’t at that level in 2011, but he still had a good season with West Virginia. Sadler is a sidearm pitcher who had a breakout second half in 2011 at West Virginia, when he was almost unhittable against right-handed batters.

The rest of the Bradenton bullpen will depend to some extent on which pitchers don’t make the AA roster. Two who will probably return to Bradenton after spending about half of 2011 there are Navarro and Lopez. They’re both small lefties who pitched well at West Virginia but not at Bradenton, and both will have to take a step forward to avoid the organizational pitcher tag. Erickson is an organizational pitcher who’s been used as a swing man. He pitched decently for Bradenton in 2011 and will probably return there in 2012. Foster is another sidearm pitcher who probably is an organizational reliever. He spent the second half of 2011 at Bradenton and walked as many as he struck out. Decker pitched fairly well in long relief for West Virginia in 2011. All of these pitchers will face a lot of competition for jobs.

Enjoy this story? Pirates Prospects will be switching to a subscription site on 4/13, so that we can continue bringing you the best Pirates coverage there is. For a very small monthly price, you can continue getting articles like this, along with coverage from every minor league city. Get more information here, and subscribe today!

Share This Article


Wilbur Miller joined the site in July 2010. He has long been known for his excellent Player Profiles, which he brought to the site in February 2011, combining them with the existing Pirates Prospects Player Pages. Wilbur maintains the player pages section of the site, and provides regular articles to the main portion of the site, including a weekly Prospects Trend piece, featuring the best and worst prospects from the previous week.

Winter League Playoffs 1/11 — Gimenez Gives Aragua A Win, Welch Homers

Next Story »

The Under-Represented Middle Class of FA Pitchers

  • Lee Young

    When you see how many top prospects are now relievers, it is almost scary. The attrition rate for high picks is indeed great.

Latest Analysis

  • Keller Supak Hinsz

    Even With the New Draft Rules, the Pirates Are Still Loading Up on Projectable Pitchers

    15 hours ago

    From 2008-2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates spent a lot of resources on projectable pitchers out of high school. So far, this approach has led to breakout performances from ...

    Read More
  • Josh Bell made the move to first base over the off-season. (Photo credit: David Hague)

    Why Should You Care About Prospects?

    2 days ago

    Yesterday I had a shorter day than usual. The Pirates had cuts at the MLB level, and a road game. The day was shortened at Pirate City, ...

    Read More
  • Gregory Polanco

    Q&A: Trading Prospects For Rentals, Polanco Concerns, Meadows vs Appel

    3 days ago

    I missed the Q&A last week due to a common problem in Spring Training: I forgot what day it was. It was around 6:00 that I was ...

    Read More
  • Nick Kingham f

    Improving His Two-Seam Fastball will Make Nick Kingham a More Effective Pitcher

    4 days ago

    With Jameson Taillon returning from Tommy John surgery, and unlikely to make an impact at the Major League level early in the year, the top prospect to ...

    Read More
  • Arquimedes Caminero 3

    The Roster Situations That Could Impact the Makeup of the Pirates Bullpen

    6 days ago

    There are less than two weeks remaining in Spring Training, and the one area where the Pittsburgh Pirates had actual position battles is heating up. There were ...

    Read More
  • Jordan Luplow

    How the Pirates are Trying to Stay Ahead of the Curve With the New Draft Rules

    7 days ago

    The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement brought a lot of changes to Major League Baseball. The biggest change for the Pittsburgh Pirates came in the draft. From 2008-2011, ...

    Read More
  • Alen Hanson

    The Key For Alen Hanson to Help the Pirates in the Majors This Year

    1 week ago

    When the Pittsburgh Pirates moved Alen Hanson to second base last year, part of the plan was to get him to the majors faster by putting him at ...

    Read More
  • Tyler Glasnow 2

    What the Stats Don’t Tell You About Tyler Glasnow

    1 week ago

    The stat line for Tyler Glasnow’s start at Pirate City yesterday looked great: 3 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K. The lone run ...

    Read More
  • JaCoby Jones Josh Bell

    JaCoby Jones Did Fine in the Move to Shortstop, But Needs to Cut Down on Strikeouts

    2 weeks ago

    The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted JaCoby Jones as an outfielder in the third round of the 2013 draft, then surprised everyone the following year when they moved him ...

    Read More
  • Cody Dickson is a lefty with the upside of a middle of the rotation starter. (Photo Credit: Mark Olson)

    The Mental Adjustment that Led to Cody Dickson’s Dominant 2014 Second Half

    2 weeks ago

    Trusting his stuff and not trying to do too much — that has been the key for left-handed pitcher Cody Dickson so far in his professional baseball ...

    Read More
  • Browse More Articles